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What is it? A recreation of the original Half-Life in the Source engine.
Developer/Publisher: Crowbar Collective
Copy protection: Steam
Link: Steam store page (opens in new tab)
As an accomplishment, it's hard to think of a parallel to Black Mesa: dozens of modders painstakingly and voluntarily spending years of time and effort to recreate Valve's groundbreaking first-person sci-fi shooter Half-Life in the Source engine. After a free release in 2012, Black Mesa has now made its way to Steam, ripe for the buying. Though the game ends with Gordon's leap into Xen (we won't see the bouncy dimension itself until Black Mesa is complete), it's still a long, exciting, action-packed game and a major achievement for the modders responsible.
Obviously, the visuals are a great leap forward from 1997's Half-Life, which over the years has slowly turned from charmingly ugly to mostly just ugly, except for the most nostalgic of gamers. At the same time, the Source Engine itself is getting pretty darn creaky these days, so Black Mesa doesn't look particularly great alongside current releases, especially the models and animations. Other limits of the Source Engine come quickly into focus as well, mostly in the frequent loading points between maps. The famous tram ride that begins the game in is broken into three parts due to pauses for loading, and in some of the faster paced portions of the game, loading screens crop up so quickly it becomes a little irritating. Source's physics, meanwhile, aren't really exploited for much besides a few new puzzles involving carrying a plug to a socket or reattaching a valve wheel.
The main issues with Black Mesa are the issues that come along with Half-Life itself: the over-reliance on platforming puzzles, vent crawling, ladder climbing, and laser beam hopping. Too much time hunting through a massive complex looking for that one door that will actually open or that one switch that can actually be flipped. Too many similar fights against the same small handful of enemy types. Too many long, slow trips down to some water-filled, body-strewn section of the complex to push a button that starts a generator or pump or giant fan, followed by the long slog back through enemies who suddenly teleport into your path. Too many goddamn barnacle monsters that will never, ever actually kill you but simply force you to sigh and fire a shotgun blast at the ceiling when they snare you.
Never fear, though. In addition to the chaff, Black Mesa rejuvenates the best parts of Half-Life. The wonderful real-time scripted sequences, in which hapless scientists and guards are dragged off into vents, yanked through ceiling tiles, exploded, shredded, burned, and chomped, which still prove entertaining and serve as warnings as to what dangers lie ahead. Those moments when you fight your way to the surface, only to find it crawling with soldiers who are not there to rescue you but permanently silence you, and you're forced back into a new section of the sprawling subterranean complex. The wonderful chaos when soldiers and aliens encounter each other, and for once you're not the only target in the room. The way your name begins to carry heft and meaning as you progress, as awestruck lab techs and increasingly frustrated grunts learn of your exploits ahead of your arrival.
There are bugs in Black Mesa—it's Early Access, after all—mainly related to enemy A.I.: a few times monsters ran right past me or didn't respond at all, the friendly guards and scientists usually had difficulty following me, and there was one memorable moment when an Alien Grunt appeared to have an extended fist-fight with a door he was stuck in. There are some new lines of dialogue with a couple clever references for fans of Half-Life lore, and the music, though I didn't especially care for it, is competently composed.
The Steam version of the mod comes with multiplayer, too: deathmatch and team deathmatch on a number of arena-style maps, for some silly and rather mindless multiplayer chaos that feels quite reminiscent of the original Half-Life Deathmatch.
With vastly improved yet still dated graphics, Black Mesa carries with it both the highs and lows of the original Half-Life. It's a remarkable accomplishment and provides hours of exciting, challenging, and occasionally tiresome gaming.